If you've ever read anything by P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh; if you've ever found yourself saying "“ even just in your head or under your breath "“ "Good show!" "Steady on!" or "Jolly good!"; if you've ever sipped a Martini and contemplated your life as the idle rich; if you've ever longed for a simpler time when men were gentlemen and women were ladies; well, you might be a Chap.
In the hearts and minds of the Chap, the British Empire still looms large on the stage of world power, Americans are still uncouth upstarts, and a G&T (or 10) is still a socially acceptable beverage at lunch (keeps the malaria away, after all). And this past Saturday, more than 1000 Chaps of all shapes, sizes, genders and interpretations of period costume gathered under appropriately gloomy skies in beautiful Bedford Square Gardens in Bloomsbury to celebrate the sixth annual Chap Olympiad.
This exercise in wonderfully creative anachronism was the brainchild of The Chap magazine, a bimonthly glossy dedicated to chronicling and celebrating the achievements of that dying breed, the English gentleman and the English lady. According to its website, "The Chap believes that a society without courteous behaviour and proper headwear is a society on the brink of moral and sartorial collapse, and it seeks to reinstate such outmoded but indispensable gestures as hat doffing, giving up one's seat to a lady and regularly using a trouser press."
Basically, The Chap is seated squarely in the kind of nostalgic thinking (and drinking) that causes 21st century folks to take up swing dancing, attempt to resurrect long-dead cocktails, and wear fashions that were questionable at the time, but are now simply quaint.
And I absolutely wanted to be a part of it. When my husband and I moved to London back in February, this is precisely what I thought life would be like: An endless supply of G&Ts and Martinis, bon mots and understated witticisms, well turned out gentlemen in proper hats and three-piece suits and ladies in gloves and Victory roll hair-dos. This was the London that I'd read about "“ though mostly in books published before 1945.
However, for the most part, my experience with what the Brits call "fancy dress" has been limited to college: From Glam Rock to Catholic School Girls, college provided boundless opportunities to dress, ahem, provocatively. The Chap Olympiad was something else entirely, an occasion to be a bit more classy. But while the Brits seem to be generally up for any such event, ready to dive into whatever costume the party requires with gusto, my husband and I were a bit more reticent. Would we be the only ones in period costume? Would we look silly?
We needn't have worried. If we stuck out, it was only because we didn't go far enough "“ Chaps came dressed in everything from Victorian-era explorers ensembles complete with pith helmets to1940s servicemen uniforms, from turbans and feathers a la the 1920s to long underwear and top hats. On display was a veritable universe of millinery "“ golf caps to straw hats, bowlers to fedoras, trilbies to beanies, even the odd fez or two "“ and that was just the men "“ while pipes, canes, and proper umbrellas were the accessories of choice. One chap had even come armed with a "skirt-lifting device," with mirror attachment to facilitate said lifting. (I was clad in what another chap called "evacuation chic" "“ "˜40s-style printed dress paired with gray cable-knit socks and brown brogues "“ while my husband opted for a tie, shirt, brown pin-striped pants; we're already planning what we're going to wear next year.)
And despite the constant threat and actual presence of rain "“ which, truth be told, has never really stopped the British from anything "“ the be-costumed Chaps and Chapettes spent a long, lovely afternoon drinking Pimms and G&Ts, complimenting one another on their outfits, and watching or trying their hands at games such as the Grand Steeplechase (just like an ordinary steeplechase, except the jockeys are ladies and the gentlemen kitted up as horses, as well as other beasts of the field), Umbrella Jousting (gentlemen riding full tilt at one another on bicycle, armed with umbrellas and reinforced copies of The Daily Telegraph, and protected by a bowler hat), the Cucumber Sandwich Discus (individuals must hurl a cucumber sandwich on a china plate, with points given to keeping the sandwich on the plate), and even the impromptu game of Spooned Orange Jousting (believe it or not, I actually managed to win a round of that).
Not exactly activities that kept the sun rising over the British Empire, but a brilliant example of British Chap-manship nonetheless. Queen Victoria would have been more than proud.